Former Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan always had money to work with but rarely used that money as effectively as new president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine did prior to Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline.

While it has been said by me that Falvey and Levine waited too long to make a move to improve their team, they appear to have fleeced the Atlanta Braves when trading for Jaime Garcia. The Twins flipped rookie-ball pitching prospect Huascar Ynoa to Atlanta in exchange for Garcia and the entirety of his remaining contract -- a little more than $4 million.

 

Garcia made one start as a Twin and was traded to the Yankees on Sunday. Falvey and Levine were again willing to take on most of Garcia’s remaining contract with the hopes of landing better prospects. That willingness to spend paid off, as the Twins landed AA right-hander Zack Littell and AAA lefty Dietrich Enns.

 

Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press pointed out that Littell’s xFIP is first amongst Eastern League pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. Parker Hageman says Littell’s curveball is a plus pitch, and the move toward devastating curveballs rather than overwhelming velocity has become commonplace for analytical baseball minds. Littell would have been a huge score for the Twins without Enns. He’s is averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 6.5 strikeouts per walk with AA Trenton. ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski thought the Braves should be annoyed with the Twins for scoring such a nice prospect with their former player.

 

Enns is just a big bonus for a team that’s closer to competing than expected. Enns boasts a four-pitch mix and has been fantastic at every minor league level. His WHIP has never been higher than 1.214, and his K/9 has never been lower than 6.9. He was striking out almost one batter per inning with AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and could get a cup of coffee with the Twins when rosters expand. Hell, he could take Kyle Gibson’s spot this year.

 

The 2018 Twins rotation returns just Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios -- so far. Santana could very well be traded by the time I finish writing this. It’s safe to say Hector Santiago and Kyle Gibson are done, and we don’t know if Phil Hughes will ever pitch again. This pair of moves by the Twins pair of rookies in the front office gives the Twins some pieces to create competition for rotation spots in Spring Training next year.

 

So a team in desperate need of young, controllable starting pitching traded for a rental, and then traded that rental for exactly what it needs. Both Littell and Enns could be big parts of the Twins rotation in a couple years, along with Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia, and perhaps, AA Chattanooga's Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves.

 

With the addition of Littell, the Southern League’s best Lookouts have a pitching staff worth seeing. That includes recent relief addition Gabriel Moya via the trade of AAA catcher John Ryan Murphy, who was once Aaron Hicks until Terry Ryan…

 

I digress. If Falvey and Levine keep this up, they will have turned around the Twins in short order. If Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton improve upon their already impressive performances this season, Minnesota will be in the playoff conversation for a long time given the pitching Falvey and Levine have and will continue to acquire.

 

Closer Brandon Kintzler is going to be traded before the deadline, probably for another pitching prospect. But the Twins could sign Kintzler and a whole lot more in free agency this offseason. Minnesota is a pitcher’s paradise as long as Buxton roams center field (18 runs above average fielding), Max Kepler gallops through right (5 RAA fielding), and, now, wherever Zack Granite is (20 BIS runs saved above average per year in center). Granite has forced his way into the lineup by playing a premiere position really well in the absence of the best player at that position. He’ll keep getting plenty of at-bats.

 

Who can the Twins target in 2018 free agency, and who would actually consider it? Jake Arrieta might consider putting his increased flyball percentage in front of a go-get-it outfield. It’s up five percent from last season, and his groundball rate is down seven percent. Hell, Jaime Garcia could return in free agency if he enjoyed his first and last day at work with the Twins. I don’t see any reason why Yu Darvish wouldn’t want to pitch in Minnesota, either. Given Levine’s Rangers roots and the aggressive approach Falvey and Levine have taken in their first year with the Twins, I expect it to continue. These aren’t your father’s Twins.

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The Minnesota Twins contending this season despite sporting the American League’s fourth-worst run differential is astonishing. While the Twins are scoring 68 fewer runs than their opponents after a 6-4 loss to the Dodgers, Monday night, the Twins sit just two games out of the playoff picture and 3.5 games back in the AL Central. And the run differential is just the tip of the iceberg.


This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community of foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters and analysts providing coverage of select games.


 

  

The combined WAA (wins above average) between Twins batters and pitchers is -4.3 wins, meaning the team (excluding coaching factors) should be at least four games worse than average.

 

Given the games played as of this writing, the MLB average for wins would be 49.4, but the median is 48. The Twins have 49 wins, which means they have outperformed their WAA by almost four games using the average and five games using the median. All this while allowing 68 more runs than they’ve scored. It all screams regression, doesn’t it? In fact, I’d venture to bet there’s never been an MLB team that has overachieved more than the 2017 Twins thus far, and if there is one, it’s also a team from Twins history.

The 1987 and 2002 Minnesota Twins

It’s fitting the Twins just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1987 World Series Championship team at Target Field this weekend, because the 2017 Twins are a lot like that team. The Twins organization established a reputation as underdog overachievers immediately upon finding the ultimate success in 1987 and have continued that tradition to a fault at times.

 

Most of the ‘90s were tough on the Twins and their fans. The pitch-to-contact approach started resulting in harder contact, and payrolls plummeted along with Metrodome attendance, as a slew of youngsters like 21-year-old shortstop Christian Guzman and 23-year-old center fielder Torii Hunter played almost everyday. I remember people joking about how the Twins wouldn’t beat most AAA teams, but everything came together just in time to quiet discussions of contracting the team.

 

A surprising second-place finish in the AL Central in 2001 that saw Matt Lawton grace the cover of Sports Illustrated blew new life into the Metrodome. And in 2002, the pesky piranhas were AL Central champions, fielding the youngest and fourth-cheapest roster in baseball. While the 2002 Twins entered the playoffs with the lowest run differential that year, they still scored 56 more runs than they allowed. But that squad had a combined WAA of +6.3 and finished 94-67, outperforming that WAA by a ridiculous seven wins over the average and 8 wins over the median MLB record in 2002.

 

Despite it all ending in the ALCS, that’s still my favorite Twins team. I feel like they did the most with the least, and the numbers seem to substantiate that feeling. It just feels better to win as an underdog overachiever, even if you don’t win it all.

 

The 1987 Twins did win it all, though, and did so despite entering the playoffs having posted a run differential of -20 during the regular season and outperforming their -.8 WAA. Those Twins went 85-77 in 1987, which would be outperforming their WAA by almost five wins based on the MLB average and median for wins that season.

 

The 1984 Royals are the only other team besides the ‘87 Twins to win the World Series despite a negative regular season run differential since 1960 (and likely ever). They had a -13 run differential and finished the regular season 84-78, outperforming their .1 WAA by almost three games on average and four games taking the median MLB record.

 

The team with the lowest run differential entering the playoffs was the 2005 San Diego Padres at -42, in a year when every team in the NL West had a negative run differential, and only the Padres had a winning record (82-80). They outperformed their -3.2 WAA by four games on average but just three games on the median MLB record.

 

Again, the 2017 Twins are outperforming their WAA by four games on average and five games given the median record -- with a run differential 62 percent lower than that of the 2005 Padres, 70 percent lower than the 1987 Twins and 182 percent less than the 2002 Twins!

 

The Twins making the playoffs isn’t just improbable. It would challenge everything we think we know about what makes a playoff baseball team, just as the Twins did in 1987. The 1987 Twins might have hit a lot of home runs, but they won games with defense. The only regulars with negative total zone defensive runs saved averages over the course of 135 games were Kirby Puckett and Tim Laudner (each at -8). And while three players had RARs (runs above a replacement player) above 40 (Puckett, Kent Hrbeck and Greg Gagne), most of the pitching staff had lower strikeout rates than the current Twins’ staff. Frank Viola averaged just seven strikeouts per nine innings and was the only starter with an ERA below three, so the ball was being put in play, and the Twins were picking it.

What a Difference a Year Makes

The Twins have improved their run differential from last season by 98 runs thus far, and it’s still the fourth-worst differential in baseball. That’s how bad the Twins were last season, and the roster has hardly changed, so there are some things working in the Twins favor.

 

If you think a weak AL Central is the reason for the Twins’ contention, then you also have to blame most of the American League given the Wild Card standings. While a drop in relative competitiveness allows more teams to hang in the race longer, it does little to explain the 98-run improvement.

 

Actually, the Twins’ schedule thus far has probably contributed more to their seemingly unsustainable success than a lack of competitive teams in their league. The Twins remain the second best road team in the AL behind Houston, but they’ve played nine fewer road games than home games going into Tuesday. And as of Monday, they had played 10 fewer road games than the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers, who are all still in the hunt. Translation: the Twins’ schedule is about to get tougher, as they saw first-hand on Monday when the L.A. Goliath finally knocked out the pesky David of the Midwest in the eighth. But instead of simply marveling at the Twins’ improbable season, let me attempt to explain the extent of its improbability.

The Good

There are some easy answers with regards to runs contributed this year that weren’t there last year, like Miguel Sano improving his RAA (runs above average) 19 points after a 2016 season spent lost in right field so Paul Molitor could accommodate Trevor Plouffe. Sano has arguably become the Twins’ best player at 24 years old -- three years younger than Kent Hrbek was when he was second on the 1987 squad with 21 RAA. Sano is also second on his team in RAA, which is why I say he’s arguably the Twins’ best player..

 

Enter Byron Buxton, the player for whom statistics like range factor and runs added from baserunning were invented. If Buxton was playing anytime before these statistics came around, I feel he’d have a much harder time sticking in the bigs. Buxton’s .604 OPS is last among center fielders with 250 plate appearances, and he’s 14 runs worse than the average hitter so far this season. He’s no ‘87 Puckett at the plate, but his ability to play center field and run the bases make that all matter a whole lot less -- a ton less, in fact.

 

Buxton is four runs better than average on the bases, and 18 runs better than average in center field, which is eerily similar to Greg Gagne’s defensive contribution for the ‘87 Twins (19). Gagne finished the year leading his team with 23 RAA despite negative contributions at-bat and on the bases. Buxton is on pace to lead his team in RAA this season, too

 

So despite his 62 OPS+, Buxton is worth 11 runs more than a replacement player because he can catch balls no one else can and score from first base on a single. Puckett couldn’t do that, and if Buxton comes back from his groin injury on Tuesday and hits, he could chase down Puckett’s incredible 44 RAR in 1987. Buxton’s RAR sits at 22, tied with Sano for the team lead amongst batters despite playing seven fewer games.

 

One of the Twins best pitchers has been Jose Berrios, who was living a nightmare on the mound in 2016 and has improved his RAA from -25 to 6. While his win-loss percentage with an average team (.551) is more comparable to the Bert Blyleven’s (.558) from 1987 than 27-year-old Frank Viola’s (.664), he’s four years younger than Viola, and hasn’t had to perform like him thanks to Ervin Santana.

 

Despite his inconsistencies, Santana has been the Viola for the 2017 Twins. While his .612 win-loss percentage with an average team is not vintage Viola, it has been 21 runs better than average, which leads the team.

 

It all up and that’s 54 runs of improvement between three players all under 25, and another two from Santana so far. So the kids are growing up just fine, and Papi Santana has set a great example for Berrios, in his good starts and bad.

The Bad and the Ugly

Speaking of bad, there are plenty of Twins who have been worse than last year, too. Kyle Gibson’s RAA is 10 runs worse than last season (-17), Jorge Polanco’s RAA is down seven runs, and Ryan Pressly has been nine runs worse than average after posting a +3 last season. Our 56 runs of improvement is now 17.

 

The 1987 Twins were not without their Gibsons, Polancos and Presslys, either. The Gibson was probably Mike Smithson (-15 RAA in 20 starts). The Polanco of the 1987 Twins was likely Gene Larkin, who was in his rookie season, so he has an excuse for his -11 RAA in 262 plate appearances. As for the Ryan Pressly of ‘87, George Frazier was seven runs worse than average in 81.1 innings.

 

But who’s the Bartolo Colon of the ‘87 Twins? Easy: 42-year-old Joe Niekro was 20 runs below average in 96.1 innings pitched.

The Twins Way, Est. 1987: Defense

One of the biggest reasons for the Twins turnaround is the first move new president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine made -- signing free agent catcher Jason Castro. I loved the move then, and still love it, despite having to watch Castro swing and miss so much.

 

Castro doesn’t hit well -- even for a catcher. His OPS is 17th out of 18 catchers who have at least 250 plate appearances when they wear the gear. If you lower the required plate appearances to 150, he’s well behind the Twins’ former catcher Kurt Suzuki, who is ninth amongst catchers with an .816 OPS.

 

Suzuki’s defensive contribution this season is also his best since 2012. The uptick could very well be that he has his legs under him (he’s caught just 345.1 innings), but even if Suzuki finishes the season having contributed 14 runs on defense, he still falls short of Castro’s contribution.

 

Like Buxton, Castro makes up for his woes at the plate on defense. Castro is worth 22 defensive runs above average over the course of 135 games. Suzuki checks in at 14 defensive runs above average this season, but is 12 runs below average per season for his career as a catcher. Again, even assuming Suzuki’s improved defense is not inflated due to sample size (it is), Castro, with the second-worst OPS at his position, is worth 14 RAR, and Suzuki, with the ninth-best OPS at his position, is worth just 11 RAR.

 

Furthermore, if we consider the performance of Twins’ catchers last year compared to this year, the net gain for the Twins is 28 fielding runs above average. That would account for almost a third of the Twins’ improvement, bringing our rough total to 45 runs of improvement.

 

There’s really no comparison for Castro from the 1987 Twins’ catching corps. The ‘87 backstops were a combined 39 runs worse than average. When it comes to win-loss percentage with an average team over 162 games, Tom Brunansky was fourth (.503) on the ‘87 Twins just as Castro is with the 2017 Twins (.502).

The Key is Charisma

Eduardo Escobar is the ultimate utility man, not because he can play just about anywhere, including catcher apparently, but because he provides the energy and attitude the Twins need to make a push for the playoffs. His smile and charisma are infectious, and he’s an essential leader in the clubhouse. I thought Falvey and Levine might consider trading him given his value to a contender, but I’m glad the Twins have forced the front office to chase history so Escobar can stick around.

 

While Escobar’s runs above average numbers are mostly negative (except running the bases), all have improved substantially from last season. His RAR has improved by 12 compared to last year, which brings our total runs of improvement to 57.

 

Escobar is the Dan Gladden of this Twins team. Gladden managed to be 12 runs better than a replacement despite costing the 1987 Twins 15 runs swinging the bat.

Kintzler Closes the Door

Brandon Kintzler has been nine runs above average in the closer role this season. That’s four runs better than last season already, which makes 61 runs of improvement.

 

Reliver Juan Berenguer was nine runs above average over 112 innings for the 1987 Twins, but he wasn’t the closer, and I don’t think Kintzler should be, either. The bullpen is the area where the Twins could stand to improve the most (read: acquire Brad Hand).

 

While the 1987 Twins relievers posted a RAA of -49, current Twins relievers (excluding the catcher Gimenez, who has been just one run below average in five innings) are sporting an RAA of -87 already. Adding Hand’s 12 RAA would allow the 2017 Twins to act a lot more like the 1987 Twins.

Trouble in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Taylor Rogers has been fantastic until recently. His RAA was eight entering Monday’s game, and after allowing the go-ahead, three-run home run in the eighth inning on Monday, it is now six. That’s still second amongst Twins relievers, and he’s a big reason the Twins have managed to hang in games despite a drop in his strikeout rate from last year (9.4 to 6.5 K/9).

 

I kept waiting for the regression given his 4.05 FIP, 2.15 ERA and 71 percent balls-in-play percentage, and I think we’re starting to see that regression with his blown hold in Los Angeles, Monday night. Ideally, he would be pitching the seventh inning if the Twins could acquire bullpen help before the Trade Deadline. He’s contributed five more runs than last year so far, though, bringing us to 66 runs of improvement.

Mejia will Lull You to Sleep

When it comes to pace of play, Adalberto Mejia is the sloth of Major League Baseball. In his start Sunday the Twins set the record for the longest regulation game in franchise history: 4 hours and 23 minutes, I believe. As you fall in and out of sleep while watching Mejia, you’ll dream of comparisons like Les Straker. But Mejia’s 4 RAA better this year than last (70) and is just 24.

The Moneyball Man

Robbie Grossman got my MLB All-Star vote at designated hitter because he had the highest on-base percentage amongst his peers, and walks are as good as hits. While he’s a liability in the outfield, his approach at the plate is straight out of the moneyball era. And in an era of home run or nothing at all, having a guy who can work counts and get on base before the free swingers is a nice piece to have available.

 

Grossman has 50 walks in 317 plate appearances and leads the Twins in that category. His .373 OBP is also best on the team, and while Grossman’s OPS+ is just 103, it’s better than Joe Mauer’s 101. His RAR of three doesn’t quite touch Mauer’s, though, and is the same as 2016’s, so no runs of improvement available here. But without Grossman, Twins fans would be forced to watch the struggles of Kennys Vargas, whose RAR is down three from last year.

 

Grossman also cost the Twins 21 runs playing defense last year. Molitor has managed to limit that damage to just four runs this season by keeping Grossman in the dugout more often. It adds up to a six-run increase in RAA for Grossman since last season (76 runs of improvement).

Mauer Coming of Age

Joe Mauer is going to win the AL Gold Glove for his performance at first base this season, and it will have little to do with the fact he hasn’t committed an error as of this writing. His defensive runs saved (8) and total zone runs saved per year (6) is better than the defending Gold Glove winner, Mitch Moreland (7 and 1, respectively). Mauer’s range factor and his OPS+, which does matter despite it being a fielding award, are also higher than Moreland’s, and his 1.3 WAR just trails All-Star first baseman Yonder Alonso’s 1.5. Mauer’s basically been Roy Smalley, which isn’t bad.

Will Twins Repeat Recent or Distant History?

Twins hitters are a collective one run above average in 2017 but 58 runs better than last season. Twins pitchers are 62 runs below average this season but also 58 runs better than last season. That’s 116 runs of improvement, and given the 98 runs of improvement at which they currently stand as a team, the Twins’ run differential is likely to get worse barring any trades that might occur.

 

Jaime Garcia should help delay the inevitable. His RAA of three is 20 runs better than Gibson’s, who was demoted despite having his best start of the season on Saturday against Detroit. Falvey and Levine are going to stick with Colon for at least another start, which is fine. Gibson has been far from consistent, and you have to give the veteran a chance to see a lineup that’s not the Dodgers or Yankees before you ask him to gracefully retire. He kept the Twins in that game in Los Angeles, Monday, even contributing a sacrifice bunt to the delight of his teammates. His butt also puts butts in the seats.

 

While adding Garcia is like adding another Les Straker, the Twins don’t even have enough Les Straker’s let alone Frank Viola’s to make a playoff push right now. If they add an arm to the bullpen, though, the Twins could make history, and I think they should go ahead and chase history. Sure, if they make the playoffs they’d go down as the absolute worst team ever to do so based on run differential. But that would likely make them one of the biggest underdogs of all time, and if they continue to outperform their WAA at the same rate, they’d be right up there with the 1987 and 2002 Twins as the biggest overachievers in baseball history.

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I’ve mentioned Brad Hand as a trade target for the Minnesota Twins in two previous blogs, and now that we know the Twins’ surprising performance has Thad Levine targeting trades for long-term assets prior to the July 31 trade deadline, it seems Brad Hand is the Twins’ perfect trade target. Here are the reasons:


 

This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community of foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters providing uncensored, commercial-free play-by-play and color commentary during select games.


The Twins need relievers

Tyler Duffey and Taylor Rogers have worked out nicely in high-leverage situations, and the Twins have struck gold with closer Brandon Kintzler. But Kintzler’s a free agent at the end of the season, and is likely trade bait. Glen Perkins has a team option for 2018 that won’t be picked up, and while the Twins expect to get Trevor May back next year, they have no idea what to expect from him after Tommy John surgery (his recovery from which he’s documenting at MLBTradeRumors.com).

Hand has the stuff to close, and the Twins could trade Kintzler and transition to Hand without damaging their chances to contend this season. Depending on who they give up, they could actually improve their chances. Plus, Perkins won’t have to pitch in high-leverage situations upon his return.

Hand’s controllable

Hand won’t be a free agent until 2020, and while he’ll make more in arbitration next year than the $1.375 million he’s making this year, he’s still a steal given his .984 WHIP this season.

Hand’s really good

Hand not only limits runners on the bases, but he misses a lot of bats. His K/9 (10.8) is down slightly from last year (11.2), but his K:BB ratio is better this year (4.25) than last (3.08).

Hand’s affordable

Glen Perkins will make $6.5 million this year. Hand will be lucky to make half that next season. The Twins' budget of $108 million is one of the highest in Minnesota's history, too.

Hand won’t cost the Twins a ton of prospects, either. While he’s one of the top relievers on the trading block, he’s not a closer and won’t command a return like Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller did. The trade market is also deep with relievers, so the Twins could probably part with a pair of prospects that are a few years away from contributing at the major league level.

Hand’s local

Hand attended Chaska High School in Chaska, Minnesota. While the local talent angle was taken by Levine’s predecessor, Terry Ryan (Joe Mauer, Glen Perkins, Caleb Thielbar, Cole DeVries, Pat Neshek, Michael Restovich, Terry Steinbach and Paul Molitor all graduated from Minnesota high schools), Andy MacPhail seemed to make it work (Kent Hrbeck, Jack Morris and Dave Winfield). Plus, fans love cheering for locals.

The Twins have what the Padres need

We all know the Padres have a giant hole at shortstop, but the Twins shouldn’t move Nick Gordon to get Hand. They don’t have to, either, as the Padres are fielding two outfielders 22 or under -- Manuel Margot and Allen Cordoba. I don’t know if that means the Padres would be interested in Eddie Rosario or Eduardo Escobar, but if they are, that might be a deal the Twins could make with Zach Granite knocking down the door to the majors with his bat.

The Padres need help at the lower levels of the minors, too. Shortstop Javier Guerra (22) has struggled at high-A this season and last, as has outfielder Taylor Kohlwey (22) this year. And Peter Van Gansen (23) might not make it out of high-A, so there are some holes in San Diego’s lower affiliates that could be filled by Twins talent like Jermaine Palacios or Max Murphy. My guess is the Padres feel they’re probably three or more years away from contending, so a couple of 20-year-old prospects with high upside might be a perfect fit.

Twins fans might not like the idea of letting go of a young player with promise, but that’s what you have to give up to get someone who’s good right now and will be good for quite some time.

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Nothing can stop the Twins on the road

The Minnesota Twins started a catcher in left field on Saturday in Cleveland and walked out of the ballpark with a win and a chance to sweep the Indians. That catcher, Chris Gimenez, would later move to first base defensively and hit a mammoth home run in the ninth inning to pad the Twins' one-run lead by one more.


 

This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters providing commercial-free, uncensored play-by-play and color commentary during select games.


 

On Saturday, Twins’ manager Paul Molitor had to scratch right fielder Max Kepler after fouling a ball off his right foot on Friday, and left fielder Eddie Rosario due to illness. And since Eduardo Escobar had to play third base for Miguel Sano (illness) for a second straight day, he couldn’t play left field for Rosario. Enter Gimenez, the Twins’ backup catcher, mop-up reliever and, now, fifth outfielder.

Despite liabilities in both corners of the outfield, Gibson walking four over four and two-thirds innings, and Kennys Vargas repeatedly getting in Brian Dozier’s way defensively, the Twins found a way -- like they have all season. Matt Belisle almost blew it for the Twins but battled after falling off the first base bag and missing a double-play throw that allowed the tying run to score. Dozier didn’t miss a big mistake on a fastball up and in and broke the 2-2 tie in the eighth inning, and Rosario came on to play left, moving Giminez to first so the Twins wouldn’t lose their backup catcher for the rest of the game.

Brandon Kintzler, a closer averaging six strikeouts per nine innings, gave up a two-out double to Francisco Lindor before locking up the save. He’s tied for the league lead in saves at 20. The Twins bullpen, the worst in baseball, picked up Kyle Gibson, who failed to complete six innings for the tenth time in 13 starts. He also failed to complete five innings for the fourth time in his last 13 starts. Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey carried the bulk of the load again, and the Twins got their most unlikely and impressive win of the season to pull within a half game of Cleveland in the American League Central Division.

Then the Twins went to work on Sunday, taking an early 2-0 lead thanks to a two-run double by catcher Jason Castro. And with Ervin Santana finding his command and pounding the strike zone, the Twins completed the sweep of Cleveland and moved into first place in the AL Central with two weeks until the All-star Break. It was the vintage Santana the Twins will need to remain competitive this season. He was getting swings and misses on sliders buried in the dirt and painting the corners with 95-mile-per-hour heat while walking no one and striking out seven over six innings.

Twins fans keep awaiting the regression, and you feel it’s got to show itself over this stretch where the Twins face quality starter after quality starter everyday for over a week, all on the road. Luckily, the Twins can’t seem to lose on the road, winning over 70 percent of their road games. That’s better than everyone but the MLB-best Houston Astros.

The Twins play 21 games in 20 days entering the All-star Break, with four of those games coming against the surging Kansas City Royals. They have 15 of those games to go, so if the Twins can hang around the .500 mark entering the All-star Break, they’d not only be in contention, but potential buyers at the Trade Deadline.

Instead of searching for pitching prospects for the near future, Falvey might be forced to consider pitching rentals for this season. Maybe free-agent-to-be Jake Arrieta could be had for Eduardo Escobar now that Kyle Schwarber’s been demoted. San Diego’s Clayton Richard is also a free agent after the season, and with the Padres’ glaring needs in left field and at shortstop, Falvey could target Brad Hand as a relief pitcher to include with Richard. Hand won’t be easy to acquire, though, given his stellar K:BB ratio (4.25) and the fact he won’t be a free agent until 2020. I’d say only Nick Gordon and maybe Zach Granite are off the table if your Falvey, but it might take one of them to get Hand if Escobar, Polanco, Grossman or Rosario aren’t desired.

The Twins just got bullpen reinforcements in Dillon Gee and sidearmer Trevor Hildenberger, so they’ll get a sense of whether baseball’s worst bullpen is trending up entering the All-star Break. Phil Hughes could even join the bullpen sometime soon, and while we don’t know what to expect of Hughes, just having another guy out there who can throw more than one inning would be a blessing for a starting rotation that rarely pitches six innings. Hughes has tossed two scoreless innings with AAA Rochester, allowing one hit and two walks while striking out one. Glen Perkins is still a long way from contributing to the Twins, but would be a welcomed addition come mid-July or early August.

One thing is clear -- the Twins’ rebuild is way ahead of schedule.

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Fans will get to see if the Minnesota Twins truly can hang over their next nine games. Starting Thursday, the Twins will see starting pitchers Jose Quintana (8.7 K/9, 2.47 K/B), Trevor Bauer (7 IP, 2 ER, 2 BB, 8 K in last start against Twins), Corey Kluber (11 K/9, 4.71 K/BB), Josh Tomlin (9.33 K/BB), Chris Sale (12.2 K/9), Drew Pomeranz (10.4 K/9), Rick Porcello (4.72 K/BB), David Price (BOS 3-1 in his four June starts) and Jason Vargas (200 ERA+). All those games are on the road.


This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community of foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters providing commercial-free, uncensored play-by-play and color commentary during select games.


The premiere games will be when Jose Berrios takes on Chris Sale in Boston on Monday, and when veterans Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas do battle in Kansas City next Friday. The Twins have to be underdogs in just about all nine of those games, though.

The Twins better hope they get some pitching reinforcements. Right now the Twins are running Nik Turley out there, but they just signed Dillon Gee, so expect him to get a start over that nine-game stretch.

Hector Santiago is getting a rehab start on Wednesday for the Rochester Red Wings, and if all goes well, he could pitch as early as Tuesday against Pomeranz. That could end up being a big game for the Twins and Santiago, who has fallen and can’t get up.

The bullpen could also use reinforcements, and Alan Busenitz doesn’t seem to be the answer. Phil Hughes could also pitch out of the bullpen for Rochester on Wednesday. Expect Hughes to take longer to get back to MLB ready, but he’d be a welcomed addition to the worst bullpen in baseball. If Hughes can even get through a lineup once, he would leave fewer innings for guys like Matt Belisle (5.1 BB/9) and Craig Breslow (5 SO/9). Hughes will likely be forced back up during that brutal nine-game stretch for the Twins whether he’s pitching well at AAA or not.

This is the stretch of games that will turn contenders into sellers. Consider if the Twins go 2-7 over that nine-game stretch. They’d be two games under .500 at best, and with Cleveland’s offense finally taking off (and three more games coming against them) the Twins could be looking up from farther down in the AL Central than the 1.5 games they are entering Wednesday.

The Twins will have 10 more games after the nine-game stretch against playoff-caliber starting pitching to avoid becoming sellers at the deadline. Regardless, you can bet new chief of baseball operations Derek Falvey will be active over his first Trade Deadline. It won’t take much for him to be as active as Terry Ryan ever was.

So who do the Twins move? Santana’s value has plummeted lately, and given the Twins don’t have enough MLB-caliber pitchers to start every fifth day, it’s a safe bet anyone capable of eating innings will be sticking around.

Brian Dozier’s value has dried up a bit, too, which isn’t all bad. He’s still signed through 2018, and at a very reasonable rate next season ($6 million). This offseason or the deadline next season would be a good time to shop him, depending how Nick Gordon performs if he gets a cup of coffee when rosters expand this season. Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press said it’s a possibility. Gordon would likely push Jorge Polanco to second base.

The most valuable players on the team aren’t going anywhere. Zach Granite can bang on the door all he wants, but Byron Buxton is going nowhere. Neither is Max Kepler, and I doubt Eddie Rosario would be moved given he’s not even arbitration eligible until 2019.

Robbie Grossman is one of the most valuable trade chip the Twins have, and I expect him to be shopped. He’s not an everyday outfielder, but man, can he hit. I think Falvey really likes Grossman. But what’s not to like? His OPS+ is 112, and he’s absolutely wrecking right-handed pitching (6 HR, .435 SLG, .801 OPS). He’s not bad against lefties either (.441 OBP, .741 OPS). He still has the highest on-base percentage amongst designated hitters at .389 and should be an All-star. He has a higher OPS than Hanley Ramirez, Victor Martinez, Mark Trumbo, Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran. Grossman will be arbitration eligible next year and would be a fantastic addition as a designated hitter for a playoff team, but I can’t expect any of the teams of the players mentioned to make a move for the position.

That leaves Eduardo Escobar, who is on fire to say the least. He has hits in seven straight games and is 22-for-45 in June. His .838 OPS is fourth amongst shortstops, and his OPS+ is a team- and career-high 121. While he’s a below-average defensive shortstop, there are plenty of playoff-bound teams who would love to have a utility bat with a 1.066 OPS against lefties. And the Twins don't need to be out of it to move Escobar. He's arbitration eligible for the final time next year and will make considerably more than the $2.6 million he’s being paid this season. He will also be a free agent after next season.

Escobar can play just about everywhere, which makes me think the Chicago Cubs would be a perfect fit. Escobar could give Addison Russell a breather against lefties (Russell is hitting .219/.349/.346 against them this season), and play the outfield for Kyle Schwarber against lefties (Schwarber has a .567 OPS against lefties this year).

What should the Twins ask in return? Well, lefty starter Jen-Ho Tseng with the AA Tennessee Smokies is intriguing. He’s just 22, and his K:BB ratio is 3.1 and he’s striking out 7.7 per nine innings. Future relievers could include righty Pedro Araujo, 23, who has a K:BB ratio of 7.0 through 31.2 innings with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans of Advanced-A ball. His teammate and fellow righty Craig Brooks, 24, is actually striking out more batters than Araujo (13.3 K/9 over 20.1 IP).

If Falvey and the Twins want to take advantage of Escobar’s hot bat, now’s the time, especially with Gordon knocking on the door in AA. While Jorge Polanco has struggled in June, he is in the Twins' long-term plans. Nick Gordon is also in the Twins' long-term plans, and Escobar is not. That's why it won't matter where the Twins are in the standings come the Trade Deadline. Players will be shed to give playing time to youngsters. Escobar seems like the most obvious choice.

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In a prior post I called Jose Berrios the ace of the Minnesota Twins pitching staff. Not because I think six starts proves anything, and not because I don't believe in Ervin Santana. I do. Santana gets by on pitching prowess like Greg Maddux. But Berrios can flat out miss bats, regardless of who's swinging them, and that's what makes an ace. We'll get a good indication of Berrios's development on Thursday at noon against a hot Mariners lineup that roughed up Ervin Santana, Wednesday.


 

This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters providing commercial-free play-by-play during select games.


 

Berrios is in a position to lift his team with a strong start. It's kind of a big spot, especially with the disarray that is the Twins pitching staff. The only thing we can honestly expect from the three other starters in the Twins rotation is that they will leave plenty of innings for baseball's worst bullpen. Even if Hector Santiago comes back and is serviceable, there's still at least three innings left in every game he starts! At least! The same goes for Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia (or anyone else). And while the Twins bullpen is terrible, all bullpens are less terrible the fewer innings they pitch.

Berrios pitched into at least the seventh inning in each of his first three starts this season. He hasn't done so since. While he allowed just four runs against the game's best Houston Astros (and that is an accomplishment), it took 105 pitches to get through five innings. He only went five and a third innings against San Francisco, the worst offense in baseball. And while he struck out eight, I think Paul Molitor would have preferred he pitch seven innings.

I know, I'm starting to sound like Terry Ryan. But Berrios must find that happy place between missing bats and kissing bats. "Strikeouts are boring. Besides, they're fascist. Throw some groundballs." Sure, it's from a movie, but it's 100 percent correct. When you have the game's best defense, you can kiss bats rather than miss them and get easy outs, especially if you work ahead in counts.

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs raves that the Twins finally have a strikeout starter for the first time in nine years, but being a member of a team requires sacrifice. When the bulk of your bullpen arms can't miss bats nor prevent runs, the starter must do everything he can to extend his starts.

Santana has not been great his last six starts. He's allowed 18 earned runs during that span. But you know what he has done over those six starts? He's pitched 41 innings -- three more than Berrios over the same number of starts. If that trend continues, Santana will have pitched an entire game's worth of innings more than Berrios over 18 starts.

You know what else Santana does that Berrios must? He doesn't leave runners on base for the bullpen to clean up. In 14 starts, the Twins bullpen hasn't inherited one runner in a game Santana has started this season. That's huge for a bullpen that allows 29 percent of inherited runners to score.

Over Berrios's six starts, he's left three of them with runners on base, and the bullpen's inherited four runners total. That trend can't continue. The solution is to get outs with fewer pitches earlier in games to leave something in the tank for later.

When your pitches naturally move as much as Berrios's do, it's understandable that some days you just can't find the strike zone. That's when a hard fastball comes in handy. In the past, Berrios would appear visibly frustrated when he couldn't command his pitches, but this season he's acting more like Santana -- cool, calm, collected. He's getting out of jams by believing in his fastball and locating it for quality strikes. He's just not doing it late in games because it's hard to trust anything you throw when your "arm feels like Jell-O."

So while Santana struggled Wednesday, there's still plenty to be learned from his outing if you're Berrios. First, when you don't have command of your pitches early, trust your fastball. Santana got strikeouts of Nelson Cruz and Danny Valencia to get out of the first inning on Wednesday by elevating his fastball and enticing swings. Next, don't let an early mistake control your approach. There's a lot of game left and your team needs every inning you can give them. Finally, never leave a game with men on base. Santana didn't have a single 1-2-3 inning on Wednesday, but the closest he got was in his final inning. If Berrios can take these few pages from the Smell Baseball book of pitching, he will have earned the title of ace.

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For a lot of people (just under 95 percent, according to an MLB Trade Rumors poll), the Minnesota Twins' selection of California shortstop Royce Lewis with the first pick in the 2017 MLB Draft was a surprise. It shouldn't have been. Most knew there was no consensus number one pick in this draft. There were five potential number ones. The Twins took one of the five.


This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters providing uncensored, commercial-free play-by-play.


Lewis can play anywhere and received the highest possible grade for his speed. Unsurprisingly, the Twins might have found another impact center fielder. Lewis already has a swing that stays in the zone a long time and allows him to barrel up a lot of balls. He struck out just seven times in 116 plate appearances this season. The mental makeup is everything you want in a player -- natural, born leader. He is still years away from the majors, so Byron Buxton fans need not worry.

Many Twins fans bemoaned the pick, hoping for high school shortstop/pitcher Hunter Greene or college first baseman/pitcher Brendan McKay. Those fans shouldn't be disappointed.

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The Twins likely saved nearly $1 million by taking Lewis number one overall, which allowed new chief of baseball operations Derek Falvey to allocate more money to later picks. Since the Twins also selected at 35 and 37 overall, Falvey could use that money to sign more expensive or harder-to-sign draft picks that fell out of the first round.

Falvey was rewarded with the best college hitter of the year. Mississippi State outfielder Brent Rooker (great baseball name) had a 1.371 OPS in 2017. He's set to become only the second player ever (Rafael Palmeiro) to win the SEC Triple Crown, batting .387/.495/.810. Some were surprised Rooker got past Oakland with the sixth pick.

Then, Falvey scored Canadian high school right-handed pitcher Landon Leach. Leach is committed to Texas but could be persuaded to sign with Minnesota given the money the Twins have to offer. The approximate pick value is $1.8 million.

You could say the Twins should have gone with pitching at number one overall, but that would have severely limited Falvey when offering Rooker and Leach contracts. And there's a lot of draft to go.

The Twins next picks are 76 and 106. They will pick first in each of the next 36 rounds of the 2017 MLB Draft. I fully expect Falvey to target high school pitching he can develop, since that's sort of his thing. But I wouldn't be surprised if he takes Oregon State starter Jake Thompson if he's there at 76.

Other pitchers ranked around that 76th pick for the Twins are right-handed pitcher Kyle Hurt (another great baseball name), and lefty Daniel Tillo, who the Twins drafted in 2015. Jackson Rutledge is interesting at 106. He's six-foot-eight and throws 94 mph with an expectation for more.

While I can understand Twins fans' frustrations given the downfall of their pitching staff, there's no solution to that problem in the draft. Even Brendan McKay would likely be a year away from the majors, and perhaps more if given the time to adjust at the plate as well as on the mound. Hunter Greene has even more development time ahead of him. Evaluating a draft that can't be evaluated for at least three years is completely pointless. Reacting as if the Twins organization was "cheap" is incorrect. The Twins were "frugal," and it's already paying off.

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Last week I urged the Minnesota Twins front office to acquire pitching -- any pitching -- and not to wait too long in doing so. Well, here are five pitchers the Twins could target if they want to remain competitive this season, but most of them will cost something you might not like to lose.


 

This was first published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters who provide live, uncensored, commercial-free play-by-play and color commentary during sporting events.


 

Pat Neshek

Neshek is familiar to Twins fans, and his side-armed delivery should play well out of a Twins bullpen that can't miss bats. He misses plenty (8.4 K/p) despite going on 37. He's a free agent at year's end and playing on a bad team in rebuilding mode. I can't imagine Philadelphia would have interest in bringing back Neshek, so the Twins should bring him home. It's only money after all (over $6 million per year, so $4 million as of this writing). But with the year Neshek's having (.797 WHIP), the Phillies could ask for a lot. So what do they need? Well, starting pitching, which the Twins can't afford to lose.

The Phillies seem set on letting 22-year-old, third baseman Maikel Franco work through his struggles (68 OPS+). But the Phillies also have a 30-year-old, light-hitting, bad defensive right fielder who will be a free agent at the end of the year. Michael Saunders (73 OPS+) is not the future. Of Philly's minor league outfielders, center fielder Cameron Perkins (26) is closest, and he's more likely to take light-hitting, center fielder Odubel Herrera's place (82 OPS+). Nick Williams fits the bill as a power-hitting right fielder (11 HRs and 10 2Bs for a .515 slugging percentage). He's even got okay range and has logged quite a few innings in right field.

Anyways, it's going to be hard to find something to pluck from Rochester unless you're talking about Daniel Palka, and I doubt that'd be enough. So now we're looking at something more complicated than a one-for-one deal, which isn't really a problem.

David Phelps

Phelps is another one who will cost the Twins plenty because Miami won't want to give up his final arbitration year for anything less than young, starting pitching. I got nothing.

Drew Storen

Storen is quietly having a pretty good year (196 ERA+) but a regression is on the horizon given the massive difference between his ERA (2.25) and FIP (3.80). He can still miss bats, though (7.5 K/9). But the Reds need the same thing as everyone else: starting pitching.

Brad Hand

San Diego is a most interesting trade partner because they have glaring need at shortstop, and the Twins have a really good, young one in Nick Gordon. He's untouchable, however.

Sam Dyson

It sure seems like the Twins are the perfect landing spot for Texas Ranger relief pitcher Sam Dyson. The Twins are in the mix and the Rangers are nearing a deal, according to Darren Wolfson. GM Thad Levine came over from Texas, and Dyson could probably use a change of scenery (10.80 ERA, 9.05 FIP). He's given up more homers this season (6) than last (5) for a HR/9 of 3.2, but maybe the depths of Target Field, where nothing but rain drops, will help Dyson get back on track.

It's pretty sad that the best the Twins front office might be able to do to fix a broken bullpen and bending rotation is picking up a guy allowing 16.7 hits per nine innings, but trading for any kind of pitching is expensive. I can't imagine any team with a competent reliever giving him up for anything else than high-upside, starting pitchers (think Kevin Jepsen for Chih-Wei Hu).

Hey, the Twins should get Glen Perkins back in mid-June, though. And Joe Nathan is available. He only allowed 10.7 hits per nine innings in AAA before being released by the Nationals. He was striking out 8.4 batters per nine, though. I guess I'm saying the options suck, and the Twins are stuck. Hey, at least they claimed Chris Heston, right (12.66 FIP, 23 ERA+, 5.4 HR/9, 25.2 H/9, 5.4 K/9 this year and last)?

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Despite being the Minnesota Twins best hitter, and one of the best in all of baseball during Spring Training, ByungHo Park will not be on the field with the Twins at Target Field on Opening Day. Park, who hit .353 with six home runs and 13 RBI in Spring Training, was optioned to AAA Rochester.

 

Park didn’t do himself any favors in his first season in America. After dominating the hitter-friendly Korean Baseball Organization, Park hit just .191 with 12 home runs and struck out 80 times in 244 plate appearances (a .275 on-base percentage) last season. But Park sustained a wrist injury on May 13, 2016, that clearly affected him at the plate. He was hitting .245/.324/.582 before the injury and over the next 33 games posted a slash line of .145/.233/.265.

 

In the offseason Park was placed on waivers by the Twins, which allowed the team to put reliever Matt Belisle on the 40-man roster. Belisle had an uncharacteristically good 2016. His career WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is 1.357, and it was 1.087 last year. The last and only time his WHIP was that low was seven years ago. Belisle’s 2016 FIP (fielding independent pitching) was nearly a run lower than his career FIP.

 

So now that Park is not on the 40-man roster, the Twins had a convenient way of demoting him despite winning the designated hitter gig over the injured Kennys Vargas. Switch-hitting outfielder Robbie Grossman will be the Opening Day DH because Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey basically said the team can’t trust its pitching staff. Rookie Adalberto Mejia is the Twins fifth starter, and both Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago might not be ready for long starts, as Santiago’s spring program was affected by competing in the World Baseball Classic. Hughes is recovering from thoracic outlet surgery.

 

Twins manager Paul Molitor said Park did everything he was expected during the spring, and even gave him a few extra words of encouragement on his way out the door. Imagine your boss is looking to promote either you or a fellow employee, and while you outperform your fellow employee in a different area of expertise, your boss awards the promotion to your fellow employee -- patting you on the back and saying, “You exceeded our expectations, but we’re going in a different direction because the rest of our staff sucks.”

 

Granted, Park’s stay at AAA shouldn’t be a long one, but he’ll have to be added to the 40-man roster, which means someone will have to be removed from the 40-man roster. Given Buddy Boshers terrible spring and age (29 in May), he could be a waiver candidate that allows Park onto the 40-man roster.

 

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